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Dance Commentary:

CHICAGO HUMAN RHYTHM PROJECT

BY LUCIA MAURO

Ever since I began covering the Chicago Human Rhythm Project (CHRP) seven years ago, I felt this summer festival of tap and rhythmic dance was consistently headed toward wider recognition. Like those intrepid hoofers of the past, the CHRP artists -- led by co-founder/artistic director Lane Alexander -- were determined to create a respected forum for the development and evolution of percussive movement.

The festival built quite a local following via performances at the Athenaeum Theatre and Harold Washington Library Theatre; and through its master classes and extensive scholarship program. But I believe all these years of hard work and community building culminated at the Museum of Contemporary Art Theatre on Aug. 2 -- CHRP’s Opening Night Gala, which kicked off its 11th season.

Let’s begin with the venue itself. The choice of the MCA’s striking facility and malleable theater set the CHRP on a more polished and professional tier – one that illustrated the collaborative process and united visual art with dance. Alexander orchestrated this four-hour extravaganza (which may have been running slightly behind schedule but never felt interminable) and showed Chicagoans that the inventive possibilities for rhythmic dance – rooted most prominently in the human soul – are endless.

The festival’s title, "Rhythm Forest," indicates the density and sprawl of this multidimensional art form.

Each performer represented the scope and variety of rhythmic dance, beginning with Idella Reed’s all-women tap ensemble, Rhythm I.S.S., demonstrating its agility and synchronicity at a cappella rhythm making and more dazzling configurations accompanied by the Willie Pickens Trio. Richard Weinberg, a soloist in the nightclub/Hollywood musical tradition with a tendency to veer off in a corny and saccharine direction, reigned himself in and delivered a lovely understated traditional tap routine that alternated with his much less self-indulgent crooning to a Cole Porter tune.

A sterling highlight of the first act, however, was Jimmy Payne, Jr.’s electric solo in which his speedy footwork nearly blurred the lower half of his body without causing him to spin out of control. Kinetic precision, coupled with complex gestures and uncontrived facial expressions, make Payne a sophisticated bridge between vaudevillian and virtuoso tap artistry. Alexander, an extraordinary artist, has developed his own revolutionary movement vocabulary, which stems from classical music. He has created a series of bravura minimalism through his intricate merging of tap and classical composers like Mozart and Bach. He doesn’t mirror the notes as much as reinvent their timbres through the medium of tap.

CHRP respects its local artists while expanding internationally. The much-anticipated second act marked the North American debut of Israeli percussion phenomenon, Sheketak. This five-member ensemble of young men, with superhuman stamina and a flair for quirky humor, presented an hour-long piece that figuratively threw elements of "Stomp," "Blue Man Group" and hip-hop into a great big pot. They then proceeded to bang on this huge rhythmic cauldron with the most exacting fury and whimsy.

Impossible to categorize, Sheketak is part of an explosion of industrial-strength, multidisciplinary performance styles spreading across the planet. Sheketak combines live alternative rock, street posturing, body percussion and junkyard/underground theatrics (including an orange jumpsuit-clad mannequin whose head revolves and eyes shoot laser lights; a Leonardo da Vinci, globe-like contraption; and a massive, suspended rack of pots and pans).

Four of the Sheketak artists alternate drumming (and beating entirely new sounds out of drumsticks against the floor), tapping, body slapping and performing to their own raw panting. The MCA’s concrete environs added to the urban frenzy of a piece rooted in the most precise, fluid dance and music training.

Tony Award-winning tap virtuoso Gregory Hines – CHRP’s recipient of the annual JUBA! Award for Groundshaking Achievement in the Field – had planned to attend the opening night gala. But, due to morning thunderstorms in Chicago, all of his flights out of Los Angeles were canceled. The gracious Hines, however, phoned Alexander – and the whole audience -- during the event and shared his sincere regrets (he was going to be here with his 86-year-old father). But Hines promised he would perform at next year’s festival. Alexander will no doubt hold him to that generous promise. Audiences also viewed excerpts from Hines’ new Showtime movie, "Bojangles."

Other award recipients were Mayor Richard M. and Maggie Daley for Leadership; WTTW Executive Producer of Arts Programming Fawn Ring for Outstanding Contribution; and dance historian/critic Ann Barzel for Lifetime Achievement.

This is the first year CHRP’s concerts are spread across the city. Following the MCA event, CHRP moved to The Dance Center of Columbia College, Aug. 3-5, where it presented "The Legacy Project" – highlighting proteges of three nationally recognized masters of tap and percussive dance: Sammy Dyer, Tommy Sutton and Jimmy Payne, Sr.

Performers were Idella Reed and Rhythm I.S.S. from the Sammy Dyer School of Theatre and Dance; Bril Barrett (also from the Sammy Dyer School) and Martin "Tre" Dumas from Tommy Sutton’s Mayfair Academy with their new company, MADD Rhythms; and Jimmy Payne, Jr., Sara Payne and their company, Perfect Timing. These contemporary artists performed works that honored the legacies of their mentors and featured their updated takes on those styles.

And there’s more to come. "JUBA! Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance" takes place Aug. 10-12 at Northwestern University’s Josephine Louis Theatre in Evanston. Sheketak returns, along with Alexander, Barrett, Dumas, Payne and Reed. Also headlining are Tony Award winner Savion Glover; Broadway star Dianne "Lady Di" Walker; San Francisco tap virtuoso Sam Weber; the American Tap Dance Orchestra; Jump Rhythm Jazz Project; and North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble.

In addition to performances, the CHRP encompasses master classes, residencies, scholarships, workshops, a tap forum and a new course for dancers "over 39." The Chicago Sinfonietta will present Alexander performing Morton Gould’s 1952 "Tap Dance Concerto" at Dominican University in River Forest Sept. 9 and at Symphony Center Sept. 10.

Chicagoans will no doubt be feeling the reverberations for a long time – or at least until next summer when the CHRP once again turns the city into a rousing rhythmic landscape.•

Tickets are still available for the Aug. 10-12 concerts at Northwestern University’s Josephine Louis Theatre, 1979 S. Campus Dr., Evanston. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets: $35. Call 847-491-7282. For more information on CHRP, call 773-296-0869, ext. 15, or visit www.geocities.com/chicagotap.

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